Why Students Should Care About Amherst’s Climate Action Plan, by Rojas Oliva ’19, Charlotte Blackman ’20 and Bryan Doniger ’18

“Unless people are engaged in the struggle–unless they themselves have gone through the process of creating change through collective and individual acts of solidarity, reciprocity, and cooperation–they will not internalize democratic, egalitarian and ecological values or be convinced of their necessity.”[1] – Fred Magdoff & Chris Williams

It’s already been too long. In February of 2015 the Amherst College Board of Trustees released a statement acknowledging “the grave threat posed by climate change, the role in climate change played by human activity, and the responsibility we bear to confront this challenge.”[2] This was 27 years after the director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan, James Hansen, came to the same conclusion in his testimony before congress.[3] As a result of the board’s rhetoric, in March of 2015 the college formed the Climate Action Plan Task Force–a group consisting of students, professors and administrators tasked with drafting a Climate Action Plan to transition the college’s energy infrastructure to carbon neutrality.[4]

After three years of planning, students will finally have the opportunity to learn about the current Action Plan on Monday, February 26th at 7 pm in the Red Room. Laura Draucker of the Office of Environmental Sustainability will help facilitate a town hall meeting, in which she will introduce the committee’s plan and offer students a chance to ask questions.

We applaud this effort to take seriously the consequences of Amherst’s energy consumption. We are pleased that Amherst has made some effort to include students in the transition. However, we remain nervous that the plan, as it stands, will do too little, too late.[5] Amherst has a long track record of dismissing student calls for greater accountability regarding the College’s environmental impact. Note, for example, the continued refusal to divest direct and indirect holdings in fossil fuels and private prisons. As Kristen Bumiller wrote in this year’s Disorientation Guide, “[a]s a general rule, when organizations are challenged, they are likely to protect their reputations, minimize liability, and address only immediate concerns.”[6] Without strong, persistent and organized student involvement, it’s likely that the Climate Action Plan will not do enough to address neither the impact our emissions have on a global scale nor our role as  energy consumers at the local level. Indeed, we worry that Amherst will do the bare minimum required to maintain a progressive image relative to peer institutions.

The implications of a carbon neutral Amherst College extend far beyond our campus. Western Massachusetts has a vibrant history of local resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure expansion. In 2016, students participated in the successful campaign to block construction of the Northeast Energy Direct Pipeline.[7] This past year, during the construction of a pipeline in Otis State Forest, the Massachusetts State Police arrested over 100 people for peaceful, non-violent resistance.[8] Recently, Columbia Gas has proposed a series of pipelines in the Greater Springfield Service Area.[9] All of this pipeline expansion gives gas companies economic incentives to continue to use them for the 40 years that the pipelines will be operational, pushing the possibility of action back an untenable amount of time. If the College were to commit to a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, the arguments of energy scarcity used to justify the expansions would falter.[10]

However, the window for Amherst to implement effective policy change is closing. This is where students come in: We are only here for four years, but how we use our collective voices will determine the Amherst’s carbon footprint for years to come. Student participation is crucial to ensure that Amherst transitions to carbon neutrality with the rapidity and thoughtfulness that any response to climate change requires.

Students should care about the Climate Action Plan because we are faced with an intergenerational responsibility to move toward renewable energy as quickly as possible. The emissions released today to warm our buildings, turn on our lights and heat our water will stay in the atmosphere for the next 20 to 200 years.[11] Such emissions will eventually wreak untold violence on human and non-human communities across the globe. The consequences of inaction are already being felt through heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires, rising acidified oceans to droughts and mass extinction.

Additionally, efforts to curb climate change should be of interest to any liberal arts student who wishes to foster care and justice in an interracial, multicultural community. The damages of climate change are predicated on histories of racism and colonialism.  Wealthy countries drive overproduction of fossil fuels and overuse of land. For example, when the United States outsources manufacturing, it also outsources the pollution created by manufacturing, causing health issues and ecological destruction in poorer countries. In the early 2000s, the rate at which we outsourced carbon emissions was growing steadily at 11 percent every year.[12] Such overconsumption and outsourcing practices reinforce neocolonial abuse of poor people of color in faraway places.

Finally, this opportunity to shape Amherst’s future is a moment when students can work toward creating the fair and equitable communities we desire. Amherst has a rich legacy of student activism and commitment to fighting injustice both on and off campus. Students have leveraged their power to create the Five College Black Studies department, to divest from South African apartheid, and, during Amherst Uprising, to transform the future of our campus. Students activists, coming together to challenge and reshape institutions, are a tried and true source of radical transformation.

On a global scale, the time frame is even more urgent. In order to have a chance of keeping warming to below 2 degrees Celsius–the tepid target negotiated in Paris–every new power plant would have to be carbon neutral starting in 2018.[13] In other words, we’re already too late. Yet, it is still possible to create grassroots movements in which communities act autonomously to meet human needs within sustainable limits, mitigating the further degradation of our planet. Transforming the world’s energy basis also necessarily entails transforming of our economic and political order. In small ways, we can begin to work toward such a transformation here at Amherst.

roliva19@amherst.edu; cblackman20@amherst.edu; bdoniger18@amherst.edu


[1]Magdoff, Fred, and Chris Williams. Creating an Ecological Society: Toward a Revolutionary Transformation. Monthly Review Press, 2017.

[2] https://www.amherst.edu/amherst-story/facts/trustees/statements/node/600726


[4]Carbon neutral colleges make no net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There are different ways of defining what does and does not count as part of a given college’s “energy infrastructure.” We maintain that a carbon neutral Amherst would not increase atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration through either on site energy usage or other energy purchases

[5] Unfortunately, the draft has not yet been publicly released, so we cannot currently publish the details that we find most troubling (for instance, the sluggish pace at which the College promises to go carbon neutral—slow even when compared with many peer institutions).

[6] https://amherstdisorientation.wordpress.com/2017/09/02/what-rights/


[8] Higgins, Eoin. “In Massachusetts, Protesters Balk At Pipeline Company’s Payments To Police.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 3 Dec. 2017.

[9] http://climateactionnowma.org/wp-content/uploads/CAN-comment-DPU-17-172.pdf

[10] It should be noted however that there are significant reasons to doubt these claims of scarcity: https://theberkshireedge.com/utilities-manipulated-natural-gas-supplies-causing-artificial-shortages-soaring-energy-prices-study-finds/

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/jan/16/greenhouse-gases-remain-air


[13] https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/news/201603-two-degree-capital